Antonomasia's Reviews > The Kalevala

The Kalevala by Elias Lönnrot
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's review
Jan 15, 2012

it was amazing
bookshelves: nordic, folklore, poetry, mythology, 2013, c19th, finland
Read from April 26 to May 01, 2013

OUP edition, translated by Keith Bosley

"...the kind of excitement that palaeontologists felt on discovering a live coelacanth". Exactly! I'm not one of the scholars of early European epic Bosley is talking about in that paragraph of his wonderful introduction, just someone who once did a dissertation type thing on "pagan survivals" in late medieval (English) religion and sadly had to conclude that there was very little evidence for anything beyond the odd motif. But in Finland, there was an ancient mythological poetic oral tradition alive well into the nineteenth century, whence it was written down and synthesised by Lönnrot. I only found out about it a couple of years after graduation, browsing the Classics section of a bookshop: this great thick Oxford World's Classics spine and I've never even heard of it? Once I knew what the book was, I wasn't leaving without it. It has the magic not only of being an oxymoronic living fossil, also the mist-shrouded obscurity of the curious Finno-Ugric languages near in geography and so far linguistically, and gods and heroes still European yet not of any tradition known to me: not the famed Viking pantheon, not the Slavic ones I used to read about in the Encyclopaedia Britannica as a kid, lately returned to a little fame by Neil Gaiman in American Gods .

When reading translated poetry recently, I was quite bothered about the idea of authenticity, of being able to get as close to the original as possible, in my frustration at not knowing French well enough to understand all of Baudelaire, Verlaine or Rimbaud in the originals. But with The Kalevala, you can't, with the oral tradition, you can't.
Authenticity, the obsession with authorship and the auteur - and along with it artistic copyright - is rather a modern idea. I found myself thinking back to a conversation in which I was told by a very talented musician (who had no personal need to defend "unoriginality") to ditch the phrase and concept of 'cover version' from my thinking. Quite, yes, I thought as a pathway opened up, I realised ... like music hall, like all those 50's and 60's girl groups and quiffed rock 'n' roll singers and Depression jazz or blues artists who recorded the same songs and it didn't matter who did it first. Victorians who had to play and sing their own versions because they had no recordings. Before Dylan and folk rock and the singer-songwriter obsession. Reading about The Kalevala I remembered just what a tiny few decades have been fixated on this idea, as the camera panned out. For most of human history songs and stories have been handed down patchworked, originating who knows where, originating with no one place or person. We know who we are hearing it from and they know one, possibly two earlier, but that's it.

Local storytellers and bards, re-telling and embellishing old poems, some renowned for many miles around, entering and some winning competitions ... in impoverished non-literate cultures this is what some of the most brilliant people were doing, people whose names we will never know although I'm sure they were just as interesting as many of those we do. Ever since I was 12 or 13 when a teacher made a quite erroneous remark that Beethoven had genetic diseases which meant some modern parents wouldn't have allowed him to survive following scans (it was a Catholic school) I've liked to wonder about geniuses and talented people "lost" to history not for that reason, but just because we don't know about them, because they did things we don't remember today, or they died young of some plague, or they didn't want to be renowned (like the medieval craftsmen who didn't sign their work), or they never had the opportunity to do what they would have excelled at, and most of all the ones who were stuck in some primitive or peasant community worked into the ground, but they did matter to those who knew them, because they told good stories or did medicine or generally worked out solutions. (And like the free-thinking Menocchio of
The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth-century Millersome were a bit too clever for their own good.)
And The Kalevala is the cumulative work of people like these. But more accessible, and more exciting because of its exoticism, than reading a bunch of Old English.

It is also, though, a work of the nineteenth century Romantic nationalist era: Romantics valued these wild, woolly obscure things I love, but The Kalevala as it stands is a deliberately created Finnish epic to fuel the independence and self definition of a country which had been ruled by other nations - with elites speaking other languages - since the 12th century. Elias Lönnrot, in this cause, stitched some unrelated folk poems he had collected into the larger Kalevala that he refined and published. It has enough uneven-ness though to feel like folklore collected. (On a literary basis I wasn't sure about giving the poem 5 stars rather than 4 or 4.5, but the introduction swung it.)

And yes, what of the poem itself? (Hello if you're still reading! :) ) Readjusting to a world of fairytale proportions, of seven leagues high and humans born from bird-eggs, bees who can carry eight pots and a smith who can weld metallic wonders from wool, milk and grain. The translator makes very frequent use of a few words that are relatively uncommon in modern English - "lulled" "billow" and "fellow" especially, with the first given some odd meanings - this got on my nerves a little but, with other archaisms interpolated into readable language, they also gave an appropriate otherness. For something of over 600 pages, I found it a very fast read. It has fewer words per page, of course, being poetry, but even then, it flows. With the repetition characteristic of ancient epic. With a sense of place and time often made of nouns: landscape, old buildings and tools and most of all wildlife. (As an adult I haven't often used all the knowledge about identifying birds and animals I learnt from my mother and her books, but here it was nice to know the appearance and context for a capercaillie or a scaup.) You can feel how sparsely populated and how dominated by nature the world of The Kalevala is. (Very satisfying for my daydream of escaping to some northern Nordic wild for a few years and working outdoors away from computers.)

There are strata of cultures here. Names unmistakeably Finnish; figures who seem quite unrelated to those of other myths; a culture more land-bound than the Vikings, all forests and farms and ice, with voyages on lakes and rivers; an ancient bear-cult in which killing the object of worship was not antithetical as it may seem now. Heroes are Väinämöinen, a shaman and singer, Ilmarinen, a smith and Lemminkäinen, a seducer; all can and do fight but this isn't like other epics which star career-warriors: the society seems to have different concerns. (Though whether that's Lönnrot's choice, or a modification that happened later, who knows. But the subsistence lifestyle and sparse population likely meant there were different priorities: the Mediterranean cultures' wars and the Viking voyages were partly driven by growing populations greedy for more space.)

Wikipedia states about the tragedy of traumatised, aggressive Kullervo who survives repeated attempts to kill him in childhood: "The story of Kullervo is unique among ancient myths in its realistic depiction of the effects of child abuse." However, having noted in the introduction that the Kullervo cycle was an episode which had a particularly high degree of input and synthesis from Lonnrot, I think it is possible that the Wiki writer may be too quick to idealise, and that the conclusion to the Kullervo tale was at least in part based on Lonnrot's observations as a nineteenth century doctor or the wisdom of relatively recent bards - and not that the ancient Finnish culture was necessarily more wise to the effects of savagery than other more obviously brutal epic-making societies.

The Kalevala also has features recognisable from other traditions: an Orpheus strand; the heroes' trials like Hercules; the Sampo, a cornucopia or grail; and according to the introduction verse forms heavily influenced by those of the Baltic states. In some cantos Christian influences are evident - though it's surprising how few. The final canto is a reluctant handing-over from Pagan to Christian culture: the priggish, fragile Marian figure Marjatta (such a contrast with the earthy, capable women earlier in the poem) has a son by immaculate conception, and he banishes Väinämöinen.

Reading the introduction after the poem, I was surprised to learn how little of it was collected from female storytellers. There are many episodes lamenting the misery of marriage which sound as if they are the work of generations of worn out middle-aged women. I can't think of any other ancient stories or fairytale tradition in which women want to avoid marriage so much. In The Kalevala they set their suitors impossible trials, they get themselves out of bargains, one - or is it two - even kills herself to avoid marrying an ugly old man, and there are long verses about hard work, being bossed around by the in-laws, husbands who beat, and that it's better to stay with your own family. The only female character who does get married during the story turns into a harridan and meets an unpleasant fate. And the talk of subordination is only in the narrative: female characters when they speak sound as strong-willed as the men and are never criticised for it.

Apparently The Kalevala was a major influence on Tolkien. Can't say I found myself ever thinking about hobbits whilst reading it, but then I was never a major fan. It was, though, an amazing journey into another culture and mythology. One which also got me thinking about epics and tales from other less prominent countries such as these.
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Reading Progress

04/26/2013 marked as: currently-reading
04/28/2013 page 168
24.0% "First Väinämöinen cycle: 1-10
First Lemminkäinen cycle: 11-15
Second Väinämöinen cycle: 16-18
Ilmarinen's Wedding: 19-25
Second Lemminkäinen cycle: 26-30
The Kullervo cycle:31-36
Second Ilmarinen cycle:37–38
Plunder of the Sampo (Third Väinämöinen cycle):39-44
Louhi's revenge on Kalevala: 45–49
Marjatta cycle:50"
04/30/2013 page 460
67.0% "Finnish epic poem in shockingly fast read shocker.
200 pages in less than 2 hours"
05/01/2013 marked as: read
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Comments (showing 1-7 of 7) (7 new)

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message 1: by Alex (new)

Alex Sarll Lovely and intriguing review, but one quibble - in terms of ancient stories about women avoiding marriage, surely there are all those female martyrs who'd rather suffer pornographically gruesome fates than marry the local infidel/magnate/both?

Antonomasia Thank you!

I was thinking only in terms of folk traditions and pre-Christian mythology when I wrote that sentence. Had compartmentalised tales of the saints as quite separate. But you're probably quite right to mention them here: they were certainly a big part of European culture for over a millenium, and to most ordinary people they would have been part of a mishmash of beliefs from various origins.

Godliness, purity etc are not among the Kalevala women's reasons for rejecting or criticising marriage (and these are women who don't know each other and some of whom originate from different tales) - but as a body of traditional stories in which no women are excited about getting married, there is at least that parallel with saints.

message 3: by Alex (new)

Alex Sarll I'm also struggling to remember whether the various quests set for suitors in fairytales are imposed by the fathers of the girls, or the girls themselves - though obviously, with that being another oral tradition (and one prone to constant revision even once it was down on paper), there may not actually be an answer to that...

Deborah Ideiosepius Alex - A lot of the tasks, all the Northern ones were set by the mother of the girl. An interesting variation.

message 5: by Michael (new)

Michael I have this book in my Kindle, but it is as yet unread. I bought it primarily because I am a great fan of Tolkien. Your review has stimulated my interest again, and therefore the Kalevala has just moved up in my reading queue. Thank you.....Michael

Deborah Ideiosepius Michael I am a total fan of Tolkien, all of Tolkien. I found the Kalevala to be a very diffrent reading experience though, it is much more symbolic and mythic than Tolkien and of course, it is poetic. I hope you enjoy the Kalevala but it needs a diffrent 'reading mindset' to Kalevala I think.

Antonomasia [Tangent: long discussion of cover versions and origin of the idea here, Radio 3's The Listening Service]

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